SNL: Margo Price, Russell Crowe, Kenan Thompson (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in April 2016.

It has been a while since Russell Crowe has been making headlines for throwing phones at people, so his personal life does not provide much fodder for his “SNL” debut. Instead, he has to rely on how well he can fit into the show’s routine, which he seems pretty confident about after seeing his “Nice Guys” co-star Ryan Gosling pull it off. It is hard to say how hosts who do not have much live performing experience will do, but Russell can follow the precedent of Alec Baldwin, Christopher Walken, and Jon Hamm, who repurpose their intensity from drama to comedy. In this episode, he ultimately does know how to deploy his acting chops as needed, but he could be utilized more frequently.

A Message from Hillary Clinton – Hillary’s recent stretch of primary losses allows Kate McKinnon’s impression to be even more desperate than usual, though it is worth questioning the soundness of this premise. With her delegate lead remaining quite high, do these losses matter all that much? That is the nature of a comedy show covering each bump in the election cycle instead of just the overarching narrative. Besides, this skid is enough fodder to ramp up Hillary’s freakouts, and the upcoming New York primary provides enough culture (New York “Meats,” “tumblr parties”) that she can use to struggle to connect with voters. B

Russell Crowe’s Monologue – The intense Aussie superstar introduces himself to the “SNL” crowd by pretending that his exclusively dramatic career has actually been filled with comedy in his most prominent roles. It is a groan-inducingly simple premise, and accordingly it works best when it is as stupid as possible, i.e., when John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” sees “80085” within the number patterns. B-

Preparation H Advanced Gel – This commercial parody finds its premise by asking: what is the deal with those random strangers who suddenly appear and recommend the product being advertised? They are probably rather forward and quite possibly the sort of people who would insinuate themselves into your life. Beck Bennett’s creepiness as the proponent of Preparation H is tempered by his use of goofy phrases, but only a little bit (but still enough to work more as comedy than horror). B

Politics Nation – Kenan Thompson’s malaprop-prone Al Sharpton impression is based on one flub from several years ago that is not particular representative of the real Reverend’s typical diction. But who cares about accuracy when his nonsensical puns (“disenfrenchries,” “AlGoreRhythm”) are so giggle-inducing? With all that in mind, this is not really an impression built for its target to confront his actor. It makes more sense to just ignore it. But that lack of sensibility somehow works in the real Al’s favor. The whole affair is delightfully confused – not only is the genuine Al well-spoken, he is also a lot skinnier than he used to be. In the midst of this “what’s the deal?!” confrontation is an actual, honest-to-goodness sketch, in which Kenan as Al and Al as statistical analyst Charles Richards use the “Black Approval Rating Scale” to assess the current presidential candidates as well as Obama (whose score keeps going up, despite doing nothing out of the ordinary). B+

Henry VIII: The Experience – A museum’s interactive hologram of Henry VIII appears to be imbued with the spirit of the man himself, and as Russell Crowe plays him, he is little more than a lecher singularly focused on finding a woman who can find bear him a son. Crowe plays the king with gusto, but the joke grows tiresome quickly, and the physics of holograms are awkward. The sketch actually comes to life when that awkwardness is embraced (see: hologram spit), but those moments are few and far between. C-

Match Finders (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – Dating games are ripe for sketch comedy because of how easily they can abide by the Comedy Rule of Threes: Russell Crowe as Benedict the German professor is not like the other two contestants, and his thorough and clinical knowledge of the female anatomy is more thrilling in contrast to the knuckleheads played by Beck Bennett and Pete Davidson than it would be on its own. But even in and of itself, his personality is delightful. Growing up in a house of women surely helped Benedict discover the essential information, but his infectious curiosity is all his own. It helps that the other characters are also fascinating, with Beck’s  “Instagram model” admitting to a fear of a bee in his head and Kenan’s host insisting on decorum but still pulling off some style (his name is “Emerald Mike Biscayne” after all.) B+

Margo Price – “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” – Country singers are fairly uncommon on “SNL,” and when they do appear, they are usually the biggest stars, not those whose debut albums do not even have their own Wikipedia page. But while Margo Price may lack name recognition, her talent is absolutely present. She harks back to an era of country music when the men were cheatin’ and the whiskey flowed freely. The gusy are still unfaithful in modern country, but the alcohol is more often mentioned in the context of partying on the beach. Margo brings her own twist by grappling with self-esteem issues – lyrics like “been runnin’ high on low expectations” are poised to generate maximum empathy. A final word: that pianist has a friend in the director, as the shot hangs on him for his entire solo. B+

Weekend Update – With the primaries finally heading to New York, Michael and Colin are amped up to tell the candidates exactly how they feel, that is, more so than usual. Because this time, it is more personal than ever – that is what happens when it is on your own home turf. They focus their main political breakdown on Ted Cruz’s old (by news cycle standards) but still resonant “New York values” comment. They ponder just what those values are – really, it is a total lack of values that climaxes in the image of a masturbating rat who splits rent. Their aside comments are as on point as ever, with Colin confirming the well-endowed nature of the as-seen-on-the-subway world’s largest penis on the world’s poorest man and Michael responding to the accusation that OJ Simpson is the culprit in a dog poop crime by confessing, “I don’t believe he did that either.” Michael and Colin’s Grade: B+
Weekend Update: Deenie – Kate McKinnon’s performance of “someone’s mom” is still mostly focused around her ability to remember the character’s names on the shows she watches, but this time she adds that old standby: adults accidentally watching porn. But it transcends the usual awfulness of that setup, with Deenie not disgusted but instead lightly amused by the plunger-like sounds of “The People vs. BJ Simpson,” which she ends up watching due to her incessant eating causing her to spill tuna casserole on the clicker. B
Weekend Update: Bruce Chandling – Kyle Mooney brings out his stereotypical skeleton of a club comic to discuss how he has to get home to watch … the BIG GAME, how girls don’t understand sports, and this crazy new thing called “horse racing.” What really sells the Bruce Chandling bits are Mooney’s totally unnecessary asides, like “This is a true story, by the way.” Of course he finishes with his traditional emotional breakdown, calling himself “Mr. Worthless Piece of Junk” once he realizes he has no friends to run his material by. This is Andy Kaufman-level shit, testing the audience’s patience with zero actual comedy and then winning them over with deeply painful pathos. B+

100 Days in the Jungle – Crowe’s juiciest role of the night is a backyard-tent dweller who helps out his friend’s nephew as the visiting family member on a “Survivor”-type show. Too bad the sketch is rather one-note, but at least it does not overstay its welcome. Crowe certainly puts the actorly effort in to flesh out Terry’s backstory, but this bit just never goes beyond Pete Davidson’s confusion over why his many actual family members all inexplicably left him out to dry. The devouring of the duck’s vagina is certainly wild, but predictable by that point. C

Pogie Pepperoni’s – The thing about Kyle and Beck’s Good Neighbor shorts that makes it difficult for some viewers to embrace them is how they completely ignore the rules of comedy. Even when sketches are weird, there is an expectation that they are supposed to follow a certain structure. As the two guys who are uncontrollably excited about being hired at a Chuck E. Cheese stand-in, they are basically five-year-olds stuck in twentysomething bodies. And by that premise, their ecstasy should be tempered when they see Pogie Pepperoni take off his mask, but no, literally everything knocks them totally out of their gourd. What Good Neighbor accomplishes is not so much about jokes or premises, but atmosphere. B

Margo Price – “Since You Put Me Down” – Margo Price is singing about rough people and rough times, but her upbeat tempos suggest that she is trying to get over them. Her lyrics, however, belie that perception, with lines like “trying to turn this broken heart to stone” instead suggesting a desire for numbness. It is a harsh style that stands out. B

Shanice Goodwin: Ninja – Leslie Jones stretches her range a bit by playing a Japanese-style assassin in the style of “action movie with maximum cheese.” The hook is that her opponents cannot see her, because she supposedly blends into the shadows as ninjas are wont to do, but really her presence is fairly obvious to anyone with eyes. It is experimental enough for the end of the show, but it needs some polish if it wants to go to the big leagues. C

Oprah Winfrey: A Life of Love – Following up on his Jay-Z Story, Mike O’Brien crafts another biopic in which he miscasts himself as an African-American media mogul and makes no effort to do an actual impression. (But when he is wearing the black top, he does look like Steve Jobs.) His nonchalance even extends to a Before/After side-by-side picture gag, in which he clearly is the same weight in both shots. It is uncanny and pointless, but lovely. B+

Notes & Quotes:
-According to Hillary, “As the old adage says: you win some, you l-”
-Is Russell’s family really watching live in Sydney? I studied abroad in Australia for a semester, and I do not recall new “SNL” episodes airing on any channel Down Under. Maybe they got a special satellite hookup in this particular case.
-The Preparation H slogan: “Hemorrhoids fade. Friends are forever.”
-“Hello, Reverend. My name is not Christ-y, it’s actually Christie.” “Not in my church.”
-The real Al Sharpton does have one screwup, when he says “Scale Rating” instead of “Rating Scale.”
-Following Match Finders on GSN is “White Jeopardy,” which is just regular “Jeopardy!,” right? Perhaps that descriptor is meant to differentiate it from Black Jeopardy, which exists in the “SNL” universe.
-Margo Price’s appearance is well-timed to honor Merle Haggard, who gets a memorial bumper after her first performance.
-Let’s not be too harsh on Hillary. Sometimes regular New Yorkers also have trouble swiping their Metrocards.
-“You look like what’s-his-face, the guy on the show with the girl with the red bob.” “I- thank you.”
-That Yorkie puppy in 100 Days in the Jungle is not a fan of being held by Bobby Moynihan.
-“All you knuckleheads are getting cars.”
-Russell uses the goodnights to “bless the ghost of John Belushi.”